My experience with religion: Part 3


As I described earlier, I grew up as an atheist, I described my early experiences with religion, and why I finally chose to believe in God.  I’d like to reflect on some interesting side-effects.

Shortly after I chose to believe in God, I came across the Atheist Experience video podcast.  I have been an atheist for the most of my life.  It wasn’t a big deal for me.  I did not have to “break the spell”, break relationships with my family or face judgment from my friends for being an atheist.  I did not realize that people could be very passionate about their atheism and even confrontational with believers.  That was an interesting discovery for me.

To be honest, I did not like the tone of the show.  The hosts of the show ridiculed religion, religious beliefs, and religious callers.  There was a general overtone of arrogance and superiority.  I visited a few atheist forums.  What I saw there was even more shocking.  Once I identified myself as a believer, I was treated with scorn and contempt.  For some reason, people in these forums were prepared to refute my “stupid claims” even though I did not make any.  I was assumed to be a right-wing conservative who rejects evolution and supports YEC.  Now I realize that this, perhaps, was the kind of believers these people were used to deal with.  But I found it a bit narrow-minded for people who claimed to be “rational” to treat all believers according to their own stereotype.   I was bombarded with dogmatic cliche statements which sounded rational on their face, but did not stand a simple analysis.  For instance,

  • “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” (Hitchens)
  • Burden of proof principle (even though I did not make any statements)
  • “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” (“Clifford’s Credo”)

I thought about these statements.  I read Clifford’s essay “Ethics of Belief” and William James’s response “The Will to Believe”.  I have a notebook full of notes on these essays which I hope to share some time later.  I read about epistemology, empiricism, solipsism, rationalism.  I read about cognitive dissonance.  I read Karl Popper to understand scientific method.  I thought I may be making a huge mistake believing in God.  But I concluded that there are as many reasons to believe in God as reasons not to believe in God.   The question of God’s existence is not scientific because it is unfalsifiable.  People who know how science works, know this.  People who are confused about science, try to present “evidence” for God or claim that science “proves” that God does not exist.  Some people know that existence of God is not a scientific question, but deliberately require “evidence” from naive believers just to get them entangled in their own arguments.  It was a good experience.  Most notably, I learned what not to say in online discussions.  I tried to understand why we believe, how we make decisions in uncertain situations.  I concluded that all people have unjustified beliefs.  So, the lack of evidence for God is not a sufficient reason to reject belief in God.  After a lot of thought, I did not find any epistemological reasons to reject belief in God.

Another hard claim I was confronted with was the claim that “religion causes harm”.  I was presented with countless historical facts of religious wars, crusades, witch-burning, Inquisition, antisemitism, Holocaust, honor killings, acts of terrorism, allegedly caused by religious beliefs.  In other words, I was confronted with moral reasons to reject belief in God.  I think, being skeptical about my prior beliefs is a good habit.  But for me, it has a different meaning than for most atheists in those forums: I have to be skeptical about atheism, not religion.  That religion is “opium for the masses”, I know quite well from my Soviet schooling.  After reading about causality, I have concluded that religion is not the cause of the atrocities associated with it.  So, there are no sufficient moral reasons to reject belief in God.  I think, religion is very powerful.  And, as any power, it has many dangers.  But these dangers can be avoided and are not sufficient to disregard the power of religion which exists independently of what we think of it.   I’m going to write about it soon.

I was told that science tells us where morality comes from and that it can help us answer moral questions.  At that time, I have not heard of Sam Harris, but a short internet search lead me to this pivotal TED talk where Harris tried to suggest that science can help us solve moral issues.  Essentially, it was a promotion of Harris’s book “The Moral Landscape” which was going to be published at that time.  It was the first TED talk I watched.  Something did not sound right in this talk.  I smelled too much agenda.  It lead me to discover Sean Carroll’s response to Sam Harris which lead me to read Hume on the topics of beliefs, empiricism, “ought vs. is”, etc.  Watching TED videos and participating in TED online discussions opened a new chapter in my learning.  TED folks are a lot more diverse and open-minded than folks from atheist forums.  I found a lot more understanding there.  A lot of topics discussed are thought-provoking. I spent a lot of time participating in TED discussions.  These days however,  I find too many Utopian ideas discussed in TED conversations and too many idealistic discussions.

In atheist forums, I was also confronted with scientific theories of the origins of the universe and with claims that the universe started from “nothing”, according to the laws of physics.  And that the whole thing was started by a random fluctuation (of what?).  There is so much nonsense in this belief that it may take a few posts to cover them.  I even have heard that “there was time when there was no time” (regarding the “time” prior to the big bang).  That was a quote from an atheist forum that I thought is worth remembering.  I won’t go too far here as Sean Carroll has done a fairly good job already.  By Lawernce Krauss’s own admission, the title of his book “A Universe from Nothing” is only intended to stir up a controversy and get people thinking and talking about it.  It’s the same tactics Sam Harris employs with his claims regarding science and morality, free will, etc. which deliberately contradict centuries of philosophical thought on these issues.  This tactic may stimulate thought on these topics, but I find it a bit cheap and self-promoting.  It sells well, but it’s alike the cheap “popularity” gained by Internet forum trolls and Miley Cyrus antics.

So, science fanatics, sorry.  Science does not tell us how the universe came about and does not help much to answer moral questions.  Which, again, leaves me with freedom to believe what I want to believe.  The result of this investigation was reading a few books by Stephen Hawkins and Roger Penrose, articles by Andrei Linde and Alex Vilenkin, lectures on cosmology and vacuum physics which was a fun refreshment of my college education in physics.

All in all, my experience with religion is very positive.  I learned a lot about myself, science, politics, and philosophy with its many branches — epistemology, ethics, etc.   It’s been an interesting journey which I hope to continue.

Meaning is exclusion


language can never point out anything specifically, only eliminate sets of possibilities (“possible worlds”  for the modern philosopher or logician) from our consideration. That is, language – and therefore logic – can only say what isn’t the case. And that no matter how many possibilities were excluded by language, i.e., how specific our language, an infinite number would still remain (a now well-known property of infinite sets.) If, for example, we say that a friend of ours has red hair, someone listening to us knows that our friend doesn’t have black or light blonde colored hair, but not what precise shade, of all the infinite shades of red that are possible, their hair is. Nor do they know from what we’ve said how tall, or heavy, or witty our friend is. The possibilities are still infinite.

via Logic Tutorial

tautology

Visit the link and play with those interactive diagrams.   It appears that to “say more” or “be more specific”, we need to exclude more possibilities.  If what we say does not exclude any possibilities, our language becomes meaningless. “A or not A”  does not exclude any possibilities.  It’s a meaningless tautology.  To create meaning, we need to draw lines between concepts.  We need to separate “A” from “not A”.  When we draw the line between “I” and “not I”, we become self-aware, conscious of who we are, our identity.

A few interesting associations come to mind.  Remember Genesis?

Genesis

Sorry, wrong Genesis.  This one:

Genesis

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.

11 Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. 12 The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.

I know, this does not sound like a factual account and science tells us that things may have appeared in a slightly different order.  It does not seem to make sense that earth appeared before light and light appeared before any source of it.  But what does make sense (at least, to myself) is that there is a lot of separation going on here.  And separation of “A” from “not A” creates meaning.  This is how the universe is conceived in our mind.  Separation of concepts is the beginning of self-consciousness (realizing what is “I” and “not I”) and understanding of the universe.

But how is all this related to the physical universe?  Let me note first that all these relations and separations between ideas and concepts exist only in our mind.  What seems related to me may not seem related to you.  My idea of the universe is  different from another person’s idea.  So, if you don’t see the connection, I would not argue, to be consistent with one of my fundamental beliefs.  But, if you are interested, read on.

Georges Lemaître (credit: Wikipedia)

In 1920’s, a Belgian Catholic priest Georges Lemaître  suggested based on various observations that the universe is expanding  debunking the theory that religious people are backwards and don’t get science.  Tracing this expansion back in time, one can conclude that approximately 13.7 bln. years ago, the universe was quite small and seems to have a beginning.  How close can we get to this mysterious “0 seconds” in universal time?

Quantum mechanics tells us that space and time are not continuous.  They are discrete.  There is a smallest measurable length called Planck length

According to the generalized uncertainty principle (a concept from speculative models of quantum gravity), the Planck length is, in principle, within a factor of order unity, the shortest measurable length – and no improvement in measurement instruments could change that. — Wikipedia

There is also the smallest measurable time interval called Planck time

t_P \equiv \sqrt{\frac{\hbar G}{c^5}} ≈ 5.39106(32) × 10−44 s

Within the framework of the laws of physics as we understand them today, for times less than one Planck time apart, we can neither measure nor detect any change. — Wikipedia

It seems that within the first 10−44 s of existence of the universe, we cannot detect any changes any more. The time stops.  And when the universe was, perhaps, as small as 10−35 m, we cannot measure any distances either.   It appears that the universe did not start at “0 seconds”.  It started right after the first Planck time interval.

Graphical timeline of the Big Bang (credit: Wikipedia)

What was before Planck time?  The plot says that the Planck time is

the time before which science is unable to describe the universe.  At this point, the force of gravity separated from the electronuclear force.

In other words, before Planck time, there was a complete uncertainty.  We cannot say that time, space, and matter did not exist.  We cannot say that there was “nothing” or “vacuum” — a concept requiring space.  We cannot say if anything existed.  It was complete uncertainty.

Then there was the first “tick” of the quantum clock — the second Planck time in the history of the universe.  Why did it happen?  We cannot say, it happened according to the laws of physics.  The laws of physics appeared with the first tick.  All we can say is that, suddenly, we had all kinds of “separations”: gravity separated from electromagnetic force, “now” separated from “then”, “here” separated from “there”, “this” separated from “that”, light from darkness, etc.  Suddenly, there is meaning, there are laws of physics, there is structure, there is order.  “Creation of the universe” was not a transition from “nothing” to “everything”.  I believe, creation was a transition from uncertainty and chaos to certainty and structure.

“Meaning is exclusion” has another interesting implication: all-inclusive and all-exclusive concepts are meaningless.  “God created everything” is not a false statement.  It just does not have much meaning if we try to explain how something came into existence.  Omnipotence and omniscience have the same issue.  This may be a topic of a different discussion.